In the 1983 movie War Games, starring Matthew Broderick, the climactic scene involves Broderick’s character trying to convince a computer, powered by artificial intelligence, to refrain from launching a thermo-nuclear war. Broderick’s solution to the problem involves teaching the computer the futility of some kinds of undertakings. He chooses tic-tac-toe as a vehicle for teaching the computer that some games can’t be won.
After playing tic-tac-toe for a while, the computer performs hundreds of simulations regarding the likely outcomes from various war scenarios and famously concludes: “The only winning move is not to play.”
The memory of that scene keeps popping into my head lately.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately in Christian apologetics and cultural engagement. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how Christians are interacting with and responding to culture. Some of the books I’m reading are of relatively recent origin (3-5 years) and they tend to be reactive to trendy issues and use, as their launching point, some of the contemporary assumptions inherent in the way those issues have been framed by the media.
The thing that has been nagging at me, I think, is the vague but growing suspicion that the legacy media and social media are combining to siphon off a great deal of Christian creative energy. A dismayingly large proportion of Christian writers and thinkers seem to primarily publish reactively to media provocations. The lack of literary style in many of these writings only underscores the suspicion that a manic pace of issue-reactive publishing seems to have gotten ahold of these young writers. Hipness to trendy topics combined with an ability to offer a vaguely Christian response seems to be the threshold for making something publishable.
Does the media talk about social justice? Then Christians publish books on social justice. We don’t talk about whether, by applying modifiers to the term justice, we may end up with something other than actual justice. We just respond on their terms. Is the media talking about race? We react by holding gatherings to talk about Christians and race. We don’t ask whether or not there is an empirical basis for the media’s framing of race-related issues. We just react on their terms. Is it hip to be urban? Then American Christians write books on urban issues. Never mind that the media’s focus is far out of proportion to the urban population as an actual percentage of the U.S. (Only 14% of Americans live in cities of 500,000 people or more. Less than 1/3 live even in cities of 100,000 or more.) We don’t apply ourselves to thinking about the 86%. We write about the 14% because that’s what’s on the media’s mind.
I have a growing sense of foreboding because I feel like these writers are consistently one step behind. By limiting their focus to reacting, they are giving up the opportunity to lead. Christians writers seem to have resigned themselves to being backseat drivers. Except for matters related to personal morality, these contemporary writers I’m reading, so far at least, don’t seem to make much attempt to falsify the media’s framing of issues. Nor do they seem to consider the actual relevance of these issues to the broader population. Many of these writers seem narrowly focused on chasing after the issues in the very same form they are offered up by the media. Only rarely do contemporary Christian writers offer an alternative cultural vision that doesn’t implicitly accept the media’s rank ordering of subject-matter priorities as correct.
The media has the laser pointer and Christian writers seem to be, alas, the cats.
Which may be why I keep remembering the quote from War Games: “The only winning move is not to play.” I find myself wondering what would happen if modern Christian writers and thinkers ignored the media more often and wrote and developed themes that were grounded in a vision that reflected a more substantial long-term memory than Twitter and TV.
I’m painting with a broad brush and there are, I’m sure, writers who are exceptions to this general attraction to the au courant. (I intend to write a follow up to this note highlighting a couple of such writers.) And it could be that I’m reacting to the parochial limitations of my own reading list. In my defense, however, I’d like to point out that there are non-Christian authors much smarter than I who have explicitly or implicitly made similar observations. One such author is David Berlinski in his book The Devil’s Delusion. Dr. Berlinski takes umbrage with atheists but he also tweaks Christian writers for their timidity and lack of rigor in pushing back on the claims of atheism. Another is Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple), in his recent book Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality. (It’s not easy to find an actual Christian writer who has the temerity to do much more than concede the fundamental claims of psychology. Dalrymple, no Christian, nevertheless takes up the cudgel, Christians having mostly abandoned the field.) Or read Dalrymple’s Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass. Here’s how Dalrymple’s key insight is described on the Amazon product page:
“...long-term poverty is caused not by economics but by a dysfunctional set of values, one that is continually reinforced by an elite culture searching for victims. This culture persuades those at the bottom that they have no responsibility for their actions and are not the molders of their own lives.”
Can you imagine a hip young Christian writer involved in urban ministry writing such words? I guess I can imagine it, but I’ve never actually experienced it. It may be that the modern Christian’s tendency to equate spirituality with being “nice” has had the unhappy effect of overwhelming and silencing these Christian writers’ natural curiosity. Maybe the prospect of voicing opinions that don’t meet some threshold of “niceness” is just off the table from the start. But I’m awfully afraid that the issue may be even worse. For many of these writers, I’m afraid it may not have even occurred to them to ask whether the prevailing cultural assumptions about the origins of poverty could be wrong. Dalrymple is suggesting that modern ideas about the origins of human behavior, ideas which denigrate the notion of human agency, are the actual explanation for a great deal of poverty in the west.
Is it even possible to think long and deeply about such things if you’re constantly reacting to Twitter provocations, the bounds of our own thought life being dictated by an unending stream of smartphone notifications?
David Gelernter is another author who illustrates that vigorous thinkers won’t be corralled by trendy presuppositions. Gelernter is one of my favorite writers, a conservative Jew and a computer science professor at Yale University. He recently wrote The Tides of Mind, taking on the menacing assumption that the mind and the material brain are one and the same. There are ominous implications that adhere when one equates the human mind with anatomical machinery - an idea that is being slip-streamed into the culture in ways that are subtle and will, I’m afraid, ultimately do great damage. But you would be hard-pressed to find a Christian writer who even hints that he has recognized the importance, in our cultural moment, of the mind/brain distinction, must less written thoughtfully about it.
I use these three writers as examples, not because all of their analysis is correct, but because they are examples of writers and thinkers who go about their business without, apparently, feeling the need to genuflect before mainstream or social media. They do not merely respond within the context of prevailing assumptions, they overturn them. Is it coincidental that none of them are Christians? I hope so, but I worry that there's actually a theme developing.